25th Mar 2023

NGOs rescue around 800 people in Mediterranean

  • Several hundred people were rescued over the weekend in the central Mediterranean (Photo: Flavio Gasperini)

NGO ships have rescued some 800 people in the central Mediterranean over the past few days - amid a spike in pushbacks by the Libyan coast guard, as more boats are found in distress.

"The youngest survivor rescued in this operation is just three months old. We now have 555 survivors on board," said the European association SOS Mediterranee, which charters the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, in a tweet on Sunday (1 August).

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The statement comes as others are found at sea, with several hundred more people awaiting rescue in the Maltese search-and-rescue zone.

Along with the German registered Sea Watch 3 rescue vessel and the smaller Nadir boat from the German NGO Resqship, the three had coordinated a five-hour rescue over the weekend involving some 400 people on a large wooden boat in the middle of the night.

The vessel was taking on water. An overcrowded boat, coupled with panicked people, can easily capsize and lead to drownings, and are among the most difficult to tackle.

In a similar incident witnessed by EUobserver last month, the Ocean Viking saved 369 people in what one of its lead rescuers described as a terrifying experience given the dangers involved.

Coupled with other separate rescues, the three boats now have some 800 people and will need to find a port of safety to disembark. Sea Watch 3 has 250 people on board, followed by 555 on Ocean Viking and a smaller number on the Nadir.

"These people have gone through unimaginable horrors and need a port of safety immediately," said Sea Watch 3.

Returns and Libyan coast guard

The rescues also follow aggressive action from the Libyan coast guard, which in the span of 48 hours intercepted and returned more than 1,000 people, totalling over 18,000 so far this year.

"They were taken to deplorable detention facilities where they face further abuse and exploitation," said UN migration spokesperson, Safa Msehli.

The civilian aerial reconnaissance mission Seabird, a twin propeller airplane, said on Saturday it also witnessed the EU's border agency Frontex assist the Libyan guard in spotting another boat in distress in Malta's search-and-rescue zone.

"Frontex was on scene for hours but only informed the so-called Libyan Coast Guard instead of our rescue ship. Our airplane crew was watching Frontex' flight track and informed our ship," said Sea Watch International, which operates the Sea Watch 3.

Frontex has in the past denied such links, but a joint media investigation in April revealed otherwise.

EUobserver in July witnessed the Libyan coast guard attempt to intercept a boat well within Malta's search-and-rescue zone. That attempt followed an earlier incident where the Libyans were filmed firing shots in the water near another boat in distress.

The central Mediterranean is among the deadliest of routes for people seeking safety and better lives in the European Union. It has also become a political flashpoint as the EU, along with Italy, shore up Libya's border management capabilities to prevent departures.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the death toll nearly doubled in the first half of 2021, compared to the same period last year. At least 1,113 people are known to have perished so far, says the IOM.

At least 57 died last week after their boat capsized off the Libyan coast. According to survivors, the death toll included 20 women and two children. In April, another 130 died despite repeated distress calls.

For its part, the European Commission in May said the Libyan coast guard will receive three new P150 navy patrol boats.

"The three vessels belong to the P150 class and have the sole purpose of supporting SAR operations," said EU commissioner Olivér Várhelyi.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

NGO sea-rescue mission exposes reality of EU 'values'

The NGO search-and-rescue vessel Ocean Viking was the only civilian ship at sea. In the span of just four days, it saved nearly 600 people - often in a race with an aggressive Libyan coast guard.

Syria refugees prefer Libya sea-crossing to 'dangerous' Greece

A group of Syrians fleeing their country say that Greece has become too dangerous and expensive as an option to enter the EU, in order to claim asylum. They have instead opted for Libya and the highly-risky Mediterranean sea-crossing.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Ocean Viking's largest ever rescue - witnessed first-hand

The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking search-and-rescue vessel saved 369 people on a boat in the middle of the night, some 80 nautical miles off Libya. EUobserver was onboard and witnessed the rescue first hand, in this exclusive by Nikolaj Nielsen.

Italy seeks EU help on migrant boat arrivals

Italy's interior minister Luciana Lamorgese has requested the EU convene an home affairs ministerial to discuss migrant and refugee arrivals - as NGOs seek to disembark over 800 rescued people.

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